Covert and overt observations

25 Mar

This blog will be concerned over the use of overt and covert methods in psychology. First of all, the meaning. For something to be considered a covert observation, they have to be unknown to the people they are viewing. This does not mean they have to be conventionally hidden away, but just that they do not know they are observing them. The alternative to this is the overt observation in which participants do know they are being observed. Both of these observational methods have positives and negatives.

Firstly, the overt observation. One way in which this method is more beneficial is that it is easier to establish consent. If 40 people are being observed and know they are being observed, they must give some form of informed consent. Because of this, there is no chance on getting on the wrong side of the ethics board, and makes the procedure easier as there is not as long a brief required. On the other hand, is the affect observation has on participants. Studies have shown that the introduction of an observer, can both positively and negatively affect performance This means that any information obtained from doing a study using overt observation is liable to being biased as participants act differently while under observation. However, this is not always a problem as some studies call for people reacting to observers.

Covert observation is essentially the opposite of overt in it’s positives and negatives. It is good for finding out research in which participants cannot know of the observation. However the main negative is the issue of consent. To be observed without your knowledge means that you cannot give consent. This breaches an ethical issue, and in some situations could mean that the study would not be allowed to continue. 

The main issue that should be addressed here is that should consent be required for all studies. In my opinion, no. There is too much emphasis to sticking within guidelines and protecting the participant but in most cases, participants do not care that ethical issues are breached i.e. in the context of doing a study, people are told that they are measuring one thing but they are actually measuring another. They found that this did not bother most people. On the other hand, if everything was observed covertly there would be a lot of issues with regards private information being disclosed which is of course detrimental to the field of psychology. But I think for social research, e.g. observing how people behave in groups, informed consent should not be so strictly followed. Obviously all the procedure post experiment should be performed as required but the initial consent should not be such a large factor. Research such as the Asch study and the Milgram study could not have been studied nearly as well as if the participants were told what was going on and what was the focus of the study.


Posted by on March 25, 2012 in Uncategorized


4 responses to “Covert and overt observations

  1. psuc1b

    April 13, 2012 at 2:49 pm

    Normally I would agree with you that initial informed consent is sometimes overstressed and that there are experiments that are worth doing, but require some degree of deception. However, I was watching the X-files just before reading your blog and the idea of covert observations becoming common practice really creeped me out. Perhaps Mulder’s paranoia is rubbing off on me, but I find the idea that I might be being covertly observed deeply uncomfortable; whether it is by a secret branch of the government as part of a global conspiracy to deny the existence of alien life, or even as part of a simple psychology experiment.
    I do still believe that there are often times when deception is justifiable in research, but I think that the guidelines are there to make sure that researchers consider the ethcial implications of this method before using it; to prevent over-use or even careless use of deception in research. From a purely personal level, I feel more comfortable knowing that, as the rules are at the moment, I would only be covertly observed as part of a scientific experiment if it was justifiable, and had been approved by an ethics board.

  2. Spearmint123

    April 16, 2012 at 7:15 pm

    I want to agree with the idea of being able to do more experiments without informed consent but the concept freaks me out really. ha. I think it is a shame how we have to get informed consent because like you said the participant’s will sometimes change their behaviour because they know they are being watched and will sometimes try to behave how they think they should, which doesn’t help research because then you aren’t truly measuring their natural behaviour. But the thought of being watched when you haven’t agreed to it is quite weird I think. I think participants would be more annoyed if someone just came up to them and told they had just been secretly watched for the past hour rather than knowing they were being watched but the researcher just lied about what they were actually observing. It would be such a breach of privacy and well it just seems quite creepy really, you would be on edge after that if you were still being watched! Like something off the Truman Show…


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